Last month for another publication, I wrote, “In 2012, narrating your life online is an act of identity and community….Quantity doesn't beat quality, but the fact can’t be ignored. Personal narrative is the people’s genre. We are a nation of memoirists.”
My essay was not published as the magazine halted production, but at the start of 2013 writers have picked up the memoir question and turned it into a good ol’ fashioned online debate. (Again. This happens every year or two.)
Actual photo of writers arguing about memoir.
Susan Shapiro got it started with a piece for The New York Times Opinionator blog, where she describes her signature assignment as a feature writing instructor. Each student writes a personal essay about her “most humiliating secret.”
My friend Jennie Latson sent me the link and broke it down in her email. "Shapiro makes a few valid points, but to say that you can hook the reader only by confessing something shocking seems to underestimate both writers AND readers, and turns the personal essay into an icky commercial formula."
Then Hamilton Nolan at Gawker responded to Shapiro with his own commentary. Apparently, most people’s lives aren't interesting, and Nolan laments how the abundance of memoir is limiting journalism.
“The extent to which we train a generation of young writers to become robotic insta-memoirists is the extent to which a generation of stories from the wider world does not get told.”
This is fine, I guess, a new opinion, but yo Nolan, let’s keep it real for the media-streets. You write for Gawker. Next to your defense of journalism are headlines for some of the website’s most recent posts, “Brad and Angelina Ruined Jesus’ Special Day by Getting Married on Christmas (Allegedly),” and, “Like Hidden Sexual Imagery in a Disney Film, Hoda Kotb Said ‘Shit’ on the Today Show Today.”
Gawker typically re-reports the most controversial bones of stories from other news sources. Yeah, journalism.
NPP trivia/full disclosure: A few years ago, I submitted an essay to Deadspin, Gawker’s sports website, and the Editor-in-Chief responded with a maybe eighteen minutes later, at 2:09 AM, before eventually passing.
With his response to Nolan's response, The Rumpus founder Stephen Elliott cleaned up the mess, offering the most sense.
"It's easy to point to bad memoirs and use them to attack the entire form but the form is never the problem....The changing media landscape has made it harder for journalists to make a living. But that's not a problem with memoir."
The genre’s biggest title of 2012 was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, featuring the straightforward plot of performing a long-distance hike after losing a mother and husband. But it’s good. Strayed knows sadness and peppers the action with knockout lines of reflection. She also paces the book by weaving in flashbacks, detailing infidelity and heroin use.
A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus came out two months after Wild. The author doesn't have the same level of material to work with as Strayed, but the biggest problem with his similar memoir about walking pilgrimages is its imbalance between scene and exposition, which dominates, slowing down the narrative.
What doesn't get said enough in these debates and in classrooms is great writers can get away with much more than good writers. And bad writers can’t do much.
Haters gonna hate. Ballers gonna ball. Pizza Party’s gonna pizza party.